First Installment April 12, 2023
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
This next chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
Is There a Rainbow Yet?
Chapter 7, Part I
The Thunderstorm Before
Lightning flashed against black August clouds as I struggled up the long hill to the Cathedral and, ultimately, the nursing home. I was already soaked with rain, my umbrella blown inside out by the furious combination of gusting wind and water that had doggedly battered me from the beginning of my journey. My hair was wet and in disarray, my bangs plastered damply to my forehead, while droplets of the inescapable H2O dripped annoyingly into my eyes.
Even my clothes suffered from the onslaught, the bottom half of my sun yellow office suit sopped through its hem and back, a victim of the limited perimeters of my umbrella’s protective dome. My walking shoes were afflicted, too, a swampy morass of mud and downpour, squishing and squeaking as I forced myself onward into the combat zone of the storm.
Behind me lay the quagmire of Massachusetts Avenue and Embassy Row, strewn with ripped branches and catapulted leaves, as well as other random objects and debris I had dodged just minutes before. Not a soul was abroad but me; the stately blocks of mansions and embassies seemed abandoned, deserted, like some grand, opulent ghost town, periodically disappearing behind a curtain of torrential outburst.
I clung desperately to my large carrying bag with my free arm, its soggy seams threatening to split and spill its heavy contents in the puddles and mini channels I so assiduously had been trying to avoid. Inside, I had carefully packed a weighty pile of miscellaneous items beneath my Bonnard slides and Sarah’s Matisse print, the former encased in a cardboard box, the latter in a sealed envelope–both my prized treasures precariously close to extinction.
If my mind had been functionally rationally, I never would have attempted this escapade. I should have turned back when I heard the initial rumblings of thunder at Dupont Circle barely a half-hour before. For some unfathomable reason, I imagined that I could trek up to the nursing home—at least a two-mile hike–by 7:00 beating both the impending storm and my usual bus, which was already ten minutes late. In a temporary bout of insanity, I told myself I would be better off physically moving toward my destination than waiting impatiently for transportation I sensed (correctly) might never come. Now it had to be almost 7:00 and I was only three-quarters of the way up the steep incline. I could just see the National Cathedral across an open common, like a majestic beacon welcoming the weary pilgrim, standing calmly, steadily across the inky sky. But only for a moment—a dense sheet of precipitation obliterated its beckoning presence. Suddenly, I was lost again in a watery deluge. An earthquake-like roar of thunder hit the air, rocking and shaking the trees around me. I stopped, frozen, in the middle of the sidewalk, cowering over my ragged bundle, barely hanging onto my assaulted umbrellas.
I was absolutely certain that lightning was going to strike me next. What was I doing here inviting electrocution? How could I have been so reckless, so stupid? Sarah, I thought, I’m just not going to get there tonight. I’m sorry.
Then, unexpectedly, the wind began to churn wildly behind me, whipping itself into such a high velocity that I immediately forgot my fear of imminent danger. I rushed forward as fast as I could, attempting to escape my climatic pursuer—accelerating through a crosswalk and red traffic signal, oblivious of any cars, past the private school and tennis courts built near the base of the Cathedral, until I somehow miraculously reached the top. Sarah’s nursing home and the warm safety of the Blue Room were just a few blocks away.
But at that point the gale finally caught up with me, pushing me fiercely, powerfully from the corner down the street. I resisted at first, until I realized that my adversary was actually with me, steering me, although a little roughly, toward my goal. The rain had subsided, and I flung my now deceased umbrella into a city garbage can as I whizzed by, rather like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz propelled by her Kansas cyclone.
I was laughing by the time I landed at the main door, kindly deposited by the very elements of nature that had so tirelessly opposed me for the preceding hour. Bedraggled and oozing, I staggered through the entrance, my bashed and crumpled bag finally surrendering to its fate, breaking open on the lobby steps.
It was funny, I giggled as I scrambled for the slippery hodgepodge of shoes, papers, books, and the precious slides and envelope with the Matisse. Truly hysterical, I confirmed to myself, as I somehow, in the process of picking them up, managed to liberate my slides from their box, scattering at least 20 in multiple directions across the synthetic carpeting.
Mercifully the home’s receptionist zoomed over to my rescue. Like sisters in slapstick, we both tried clumsily to retrieve my sprawling mess—lunging and grasping, scooping and juggling, we cleared the normally immaculate floor. As she handed me a damp shoe, the fake antique clock nearby chimed, not so comically, the quarter hour.
“It’s 7:15,” I yelled, panicking. “They’re still there,” the receptionist assured me, anticipating my question. “Don’t worry…slow down,” she called after me as I charged down the hall, balancing in pieces, sans container, my possessions. “It’s not too late.”
The Blue Room, though, was strangely quiet as I approached—not even an undertone of voices could be detected. Did people really exist inside its boundaries, I wondered? Through the closest of the room’s two doors I saw the residents first from the back. Waiting, motionless en masse, like passengers in some soundless train station, their attention transfixed, their eyes riveted firmly as if concentrating in unison on the next imaginary arrival.
Sarah, Mr. Ginsburg, Mrs. Stevens, the Maybelline lady, even Alice, the activities director, and more than a dozen other residents with the usual cortege of accompanying wheelchairs and walkers were assembled here tonight. Definitely the largest group in attendance—and, of course, on the one time that I was late.
They continued to be unaware of my presence as I turned through the second door. For just the briefest moment, I was witness to the cause of their silence. From the vantage point of the front, as if I were perceiving the reverse image of a mirror or the opposite side of a coin, their faces stretched before me in a collective expression of despondency—their stillness actually anxiety, their patience really despair.
Sarah and Alice I noticed, were sitting together in the center of the group. They seemed an incongruous pair; Alice, a heavyset, normally energetic woman was now bowed in helplessness, her hands listlessly folded in a kind of absent minded prayer, while Sarah, in slender contrast, leaned vigilantly, if a little shakily, into her cane, undeterred in her search for me.
She sighted me first before I had a chance to announce myself to the others. She gasped, startled, her large bird eyes widening, blinking rapidly, uncontrollably in astonishment. Did I look that bad? I could feel another oversized trickle, slide embarrassingly down my nose. Then Sarah smiled, slowly, knowingly, to alert Alice.
“Oh, thank God, you made it!” Alice boomed, revived immediately bounding from her blue chair. “We’ve been waiting almost a half-hour. I thought you weren’t going to make it. But,” she exclaimed, reaching over to hug Sarah in a bearlike grip which I feared her fragile recipient might not survive, “Sarah was sure you were going to make it….But look at you!” she cried again, suddenly assessing my shambled appearance. “You’re soaked…and your things…I’ll get you a towel and a new bag….Could you help us?” she called over to the residents. Within a few second, I was surrounded by a flurry of assistants—the Maybelline lady, Mrs. Stevens and her club of companions, even Mr. Ginsburg who had graduated to a walker tonight, attempted to aid me, although Alice told him firmly to sit down.
But Sarah did not move from her seat next to the slide projector. She was watching me from across the Blue Room—smaller, whiter, more vulnerable than I had ever remembered, her eyes sad and beseeching. Her earlier strength and fortitude had greatly subsided. Her body seemed to be retreating, drawing back into a narrower space, like a pale clamshell enclosing upon itself, or a fading autumn leaf contracting in the cold. I sensed her isolation, and perhaps her envy of the other residents’ activity, as they helped me reorganize and rearrange myself—toweling me off, wiping my books and prints, repacking my bag. Alice supervised initially, then when satisfied at the residents’ progress, departed for her office, promising to drive me home later.
As soon as my elder helpmates allowed me, I picked up Sarah’s envelope, dry now though smudged with dirt and grit, but still miraculously sealed, and walked over to her. “I have a little present for you, Sarah,” I said handing her my gift.
“Is it what I think it is?” she queried shyly, looking up at me and then away to her lap where she carefully placed the envelope.
“Well, it’s from the Phillips,” I hinted slyly, expecting her to immediately satisfy her curiosity. But she unexpectedly left the envelope unopened, content simply to contemplate its manila exterior.
“I’d like to look at it later, if that’s all right with you, Joan?” she asked, already knowing I wouldn’t deny her request for privacy in appreciating the Matisse.
I was just about to respond when I heard a soft, yet strangely metallic voice behind me, slightly grating in timbre, clicking and clacking, statically, lie a faulty telephone line.
“Is there a rainbow yet? I’d like to see it.”
COMING THURSDAY: DISCOVERING THE RAINBOW
Photo of National Cathedral by Joan Hart
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Museum One Publications